Friday, October 28, 2011

Kandahar City Incident

One of our small bases in Kandahar City had a little too much excitement yesterday.  A small group of insurgents (around four, depending on the source) attacked Camp Nathan Smith with rifles, RPG's, and two car bombs (VBIEDs).  But they were pretty spectacularly unsuccessful.  Not only did they never breach the gate, but they were forced back into a nearby house, where some were killed by the Afghan police forces and the rest by a Hellfire missile.  Unfortunately, one of our interpreters was killed in the attack and a few others wounded.

The success story is that the insurgents were chased down and cornered, and some were killed, by Afghan security forces.  They were led by General Raziq, a very strong commander.  Think Dirty Harry in charge of a small army and you have a rough idea.  He's not what you'd call a "good" guy, but he's extremely effective.  General Raziq happened to be at a meeting at the base when the insurgents attacked, and within 15 minutes had his forces mobilized and the insurgents on the run.  (These insurgents were both (a) not too swift in their planning and (b) fabulously unlucky.)

This camp is where the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is based.  I have quite a few friends that I work with there, so I was happy to hear that all were safe.

Kandahar has been very quiet in recent weeks.  There has been little in the way of "kinetics" (military-speak for "shooting and bombing") throughout the city.  The airport, where I'm based, is several miles outside of town.  It has been the frequent target of rocket attacks, but in the two weeks I've been here, we've only had maybe three days with attacks.  The general feeling is that the insurgents are winding up the fighting season and laying up for winter.  Yesterday's assault, and another in a nearby town, were probably their "goodbye" messages until spring.  They won't be missed.  Not by us and not by the locals, either.  Most of the people here just want to live normal lives.  They don't much care who's in charge.  Well, yes they do: they don't like the Taliban because they're violent thugs, but they don't like us because we're infidels, foreigners, and wherever we are, there are Taliban attacks.  They just want somebody who'll leave them the hell alone.

We're working on it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting Up to Speed

The steep side of the learning curve is a tough place to be.  So much to learn, so little time to learn it before you feel like you're a boat anchor on an otherwise functional organization.  Having been through it so many times before, I know it's only temporary.

You have to learn to speak in acronyms when you're working with the military.  "I'm taking an MRAP to FOB Falcon to meet with the J5 in the MOST about the RSSA.  See you at the DFAC, then we'll RTB by 1730 for the BUA at the COB."  Acronyms have a half-life of about two years before they're overtaken by new ones.  Seems like about half the ones I used in Iraq have been supplanted by new versions, and some of the ones I used now mean something entirely different.  It's like learning a new language.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what it is.

Gradually, though, I'm getting there.  After sitting through six or seven meetings, reading a few hundred emails, and going through a dozen PowerPoint briefing packages, things are starting to make sense.  I'm recognizing terms and concepts and even a few acronyms here and there.  Finally, today I felt like I was starting to make substantive contributions.  I was in a meeting about one of the largest projects in southern Afghanistan.  Most of the discussion had been about typical project management issues: resources, timelines, coordination, and so forth.  All of which was valuable, but at this point in the campaign, the focus is shifting from building stuff for the Afghans to getting the Afghans to support and maintain the projects we've already done.  So I pointed out the new direction and asked how we were going to address it with this project.  Changed the whole focus of the meeting, which went on for another hour and a half.

And this is an important point, one that we've discussed several times over the last few days.  Remember when George Bush said we're not going to do nation-building?  That's pretty much the main thrust of everything we've been doing ever since.  In typical American fashion, our response has been to throw money and people at the problem and hope something happens.  So lots of people, mostly pretty smart and very dedicated, have been giving it their best shot for the past ten years.  And for ten years, we've been on the steep side of the learning curve.  How do you build nations?  Particularly when, as in Iraq, the nation isn't nearly as advanced as it thinks it is?  Or when, as in Afghanistan, it's still a feudal, medieval area that doesn't really have much of a government?

For years, our answer has been to give them things we think they need.  We built schools, but they can't find teachers for it, so they often sit empty.  We built clinics, but there's no electricity for them.  We put in diesel generators, but they can't buy the fuel.  And so on.  That's not to say that what we've done has made no difference: it certainly has.  There are more and more schools opening up every day and villages are recruiting teachers.  Clinics are staffed by people with almost no education (literally) but years of experience.  Businessmen are creating local Chambers of Commerce.  I'm seeing tiny baby steps of progress.

As T.E. Lawrence said, "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly."  This was true in Iraq as we gradually stepped back and the Iraqis took control of their own country.  It was slow and difficult, but by the time I left in the spring of 2010, they were capable of standing by themselves if they wanted to.  Now we're beginning to do the same thing with the Afghans, only they are starting from a much different base: much lower literacy, no infrastructure to speak of, no real economy, and not much in the way of resources.  And we have a definite timeline: in three years, they will be fully in the driver's seat.  It remains to be seen whether they can do it "tolerably" as a nation.  They're doing it now in some areas of the country, but not here, not yet.

Sure hope I can do something to help them along.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Settling In

Kandahar Airfield is a big base, with over 30,000 people running around on it.  The demographics are pretty skewed.  Most of the people are young, in their very early 20's.  Most are male.  Most are Americans.  Most are military.  I meet two of those criteria: male and American, but I'm no longer young and no longer military.  Still, despite the heavy tilt in a few key directions, there's a lot of diversity here, too.  Walk anywhere and you'll pass lots of different soldiers: Belgians, Slovaks, Canadians, French, Australians, Romanians, Czechs, Germans, Dutch, Singaporean, and more.  There are lots of contractors here from nations around the world: Russia, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, you name it.  There are a fair number of both military and civilian women.  And there are quite a few graybeards, like me, old fogies who make you wonder what the hell they're doing in a war zone.

And it is a war zone.  We've had a few alarms go off and every day the EOD guys (explosive ordnance disposal) conduct a few controlled detonations.  Recently, there was a rocket attack and the Taliban issued a statement claiming that we had suffered dire casualties.  In reality, it hit the sewage settling lagoon (aka, the "poop pond") and all it took out were some "brown trout".

Kandahar Airfield is my new base of operations for the next year.  I'm part of a mobile team that goes out to various places to help build Afghan capabilities to govern their own country.  I wasn't originally slated for this job.  I was supposed to go to a small team on a forward operating base (a FOB) to work closely with a particular district government.  But when I got here, suddenly they were talking about keeping me here at the headquarters.  Frankly, I wasn't happy.  I've done plenty of headquarters and staff tours - too many - and didn't want to sit around meeting with Americans all day long.  I could do that back in the States.  But then they put me on this mobile team and I'm happy.  It's a new team with some very sharp people, and we're going to be on the road a lot.  I'll get to see a lot of different places here in southern Afghanistan, rather than one particular small base.  Sounds good to me!

My living quarters are still pretty basic.  I'm going to be living in transient quarters for a few weeks since all the permanent rooms are taken.  Transient quarters are CHUs about 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, with two bunk beds in it and not much else.  When you've got four guys living in that small a space, it can get a little ... umm ... "musty".  At the moment, though, it's just two of us, and at least I've got a bottom bunk.  Bathrooms and showers are in another building about 20 yards away.  I'm just happy I'm not on a cot.

It's Friday night now, which means movie night.  Our command gets pizzas and shows movies on the T-walls outside.  Everybody pulls up a chair and enjoys a flick.  They just finished "Last of the Mohicans" and are starting "O Brother Where Art Thou".

So.  I'm checked into my new job and it's a good one with some sharp colleagues.  I've got a pretty good living situation, all things considered.  Gonna be a good year.

Friday, October 14, 2011


It's a beautiful day in Kabul.  The sky is a clear cerulean blue, with a light haze near the ground and not a cloud to be seen.  The temperature is around 70 with very light, ghosting, puffs of breeze.  The city is very quiet today.  It's Friday, the Afghan weekend, so there's no construction and traffic is at a minimum.  I can hear compressors from chill units here on the Embassy compound, a few birds chirping, and a little light traffic noise from out in town.

I'm sitting in a picnic area under some kind of tree that has round leaves.  You can tell it's had a rough life: branches have been sawn off or broken off and the trunk has a tortuous wrap to it.  The tree and I are surrounded by CHUs.  These are the shipping containers that have been turned into housing units.  The CHUs are wrapped and topped with sandbags, all covered up neatly with heavy tan canvas, in order to protect their people from incoming rockets, mortars, and small arms fire.  Most of these containers are divided into two living quarters, each housing two people.  Each one is equipped with a bunk bed, dresser, TV, tiny desk, tiny refrigerator, locker, and a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower.  This is pretty primo quarters, too.  Most CHUs in Afghanistan don't have running water.  I'm hoping that (a) I get a CHU at my assignment and (b) that it has running water.  I'm probably dreaming.

I've been to two nearby military compounds in the past couple of days.  As I noted previously, military forces are using shipping containers as their building block of choice for expeditionary construction.  I've seen some very large barracks - 3 stories tall, 10 units deep, 2 units wide - built entirely out of shipping containers.  You want office space?  No problem: plop down six or eight containers, plug in electrical power, fire up the air conditioners, open the doors, and you're in business.

Americans aren't the only ones using containers.  Afghans are, too.  On the road to another base, I saw lots of containers housing small stores, rug shops, gas stations, offices, you name it.  Afghans don't stack containers like Americans do, but they're just as imaginative in devising new uses for them.

As in Iraq, Fridays are the weekend.  That accounts for the quiet on the streets outside the Embassy compound.  The Embassy and international military forces stand down, too.  Over at the ISAF compound, soldiers from a variety of nations are playing soccer, sitting in a restaurant, or checking out the bazaar.  It's pretty cool to walk around and see all the different uniforms.  Germany, Italy, Macedonia, the Netherlands, and more.  The merchants running the stores and restaurants come from all over as well.  You can get a good Italian pizza made by a Chinese couple, or order Mexican burritos from an Indian.  An Afghan gent will be happy to sell you a variety of electronic gizmos as long as you pay in Euros.  Yes, Kabul is quite the international city.

I'm enjoying a bit of rest today while I can.  Things are going to change very shortly.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Kabul is half a world away from home and, at 5900+ feet, a lot higher than even Denver.  Each of these facts alone would wreck my sleep; combined, they've caused me a lot of aggravation over the past week.  But I'm finally getting adjusted.  I slept in until 3 a.m. this morning, which was a whole hour better than yesterday.  Tomorrow, I'm shooting for 3:30!

Our group of intrepid volunteers arrived in Kabul on Tuesday of last week.  We retrieved our bags in the airport terminal under an ad featuring a bearded smiling Afghan gent urging us to listen to FM 108, "For the Rock and Roll in all of us!".  Then we were herded into our armored SUVs and hustled through Kabul traffic to the Embassy.  Kabul traffic reminds me very much of, say, the Philippines, or Baghdad, or Bangkok, only with fewer rules.  "Cut-throat" doesn't even come close.  I'm glad I was in the back seat with plenty of heavy steel between me and the cars, trucks, and donkey carts outside.

We arrived safely and were quickly settled into our hooches, given temporary badges, and shown around the compound, our new temporary home.  Over the next few days we went through a variety of training classes such as security precautions, medical, Embassy organization, our mission in Afghanistan, IED familiarization and so on.  Meanwhile I worked to get a lot of nitnoid admin things straightened out.  My travel account, for example, has duplicate entries for a trip I took from Iraq three years ago; one of these entries is marked "closed" and the other "open" for reasons that are impossible to discern.  Another account is to be used to arrange travel within Afghanistan and, for some reason, they aren't letting me into it yet.  A third account is to be used to arrange international travel and I have no idea where to even find that one.  Meanwhile, I need to make some changes to my pay account, but they haven't given me a user ID and password.  Ah, bureaucracy at its finest.

While in Iraq, I commented on the ubiquity of temporary buildings, especially those made out of shipping containers.  They've taken it to a new level in Afghanistan.  You would not believe the office and berthing complexes that can be built, Lego-style, with shipping containers.  They can be multi-story edifices with large decks, long single-story rows surrounded by sandbags, stand-alone units, or anything in between.  My particular hooch is a shipping container.  It sits at a slight list to starboard and down a bit in the stern, but it has air conditioning and a functioning bathroom.  We call this a "wet CHU".  I'm happy to have it right now because in a week or so, I'll be in a "dry CHU", meaning the bathroom is in another shipping container somewhere outside.  And a few days after that, I'm apparently going to be in someplace even more basic.  More on that when it develops.

Over the past two days, I've been in contact with the unit that I'm headed to.  I've talked to a couple of people who already work there (or nearby) and have learned a lot about my soon-to-be life.  And I have to say, I'm pretty excited about it.  The mission is challenging, the living arrangements extremely spartan, and the operational environment a bit more exciting than I'd prefer.  But on the whole, it's a mission that needs doing and I can do it.  

So in a few days I'll finish up the last of my training here in Kabul.  Then I'll head downrange, visit with a couple of organizations that I'll be working with, and finally arrive at my assignment.  

Maybe by that time, I'll be able to sleep the whole night.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Hotel Rooms

My hotel room in Dubai.

My "hotel" room at the US Embassy, Kabul.  Mine is the top bunk.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Training Completed

For the past week, I've been in Indiana, going through training at Camp Atterbury and the Muscatatuck national training center. This was an intensive immersion period. We lived in conditions similar to those we'll live in in Afghanistan on a Contingency Operating Base (COB). We prepared for, and conducted, realistic scenarios in which we travelled to meetings in convoys, met with Afghan officials and villagers, and responded to attacks. We learned a lot about our mission. Most important, we forged some really strong teams in a very short time.

The week did not start well for me. I got to the airport in Washington a couple of hours before show time and discovered that my ticket had not been paid for. Yep, that's right, our admin section had only processed the first half of my travel preps. They'd made my reservations, but they hadn't actually gotten around to paying for them. And this was a Saturday afternoon. Think they're going to be in their offices working? Are you smoking dope? I got on the phone and called the travel agency that State uses. The first agent put me on hold and eventually disconnected me. The second told me to go home and they'd reschedule my travel for Monday or Tuesday. Not an option: training started that night. Finally, the third agent worked with me to find a duty officer in State who verbally authorized them to issue the ticket and State would follow up with the paperwork on Monday. So 45 minutes before takeoff, my ticket was issued. Whew! I was a nervous wreck, but I was on the plane.

We landed in Indianapolis and were then bused down to Camp Atterbury. The next morning (Sunday), we had an orientation briefing and then launched into a videoconference with the US Embassy in Kabul. For me, this made it real: here were the people that we will be seeing in person, and working with, in just a few days. Immediately afterward, it was off to the field where we got some familiarization training with pistols and then learned how to survive an MRAP rollover. This part included being loaded into an MRAP simulator and turned upside down. Getting out of an upside-down MRAP while wearing body armor and a helmet is quite the challenge, but we did. That afternoon, we were loaded into another bus and sent to the "COB", where we were issued our body armor, computers, bedding, given our berthing assignments, and basically settled in. We had a faux-briefing, military-style, that evening to set the stage for the week's activities.

On Monday morning the scenarios started in earnest. Every morning, we'd get into our group rooms at around 7 am, have breakfast together, and prepare for the day's meetings. We worked with our military security forces to plan the missions, convoy to wherever we were meeting the Afghans, conduct the meeting, and convoy again to the next scenario. In the evening we'd go over the lessons learned from the day's activities and then prepare for the next day. We'd generally hit the rack around 10-11 pm after going hard all day long.

I have to give kudos to all involved for the quality of this training. It was some of the very best I've ever had. Classroom training is one thing, but most people learn by doing, and this week, we did a lot. The pace was hard, the scenarios well-crafted, and all the Afghan roles were played by real Afghans. The role of a police chief, for example, was played by a guy who had been a real police chief in Afghanistan. A "village elder" really was a village elder. An imam had been a senior official in an Afghan bank. Most of our interpreters were extremely fluent in English - so much so that we were warned that most of the ones we'll work with in the field will not be as good.

So what were the scenarios like? We met with a provincial governor to introduce ourselves. We met with a district governor and tribal elders to discuss the reintegration of Taliban insurgents into the village. We tried to discuss agricultural issues with officials who wanted to talk about something else entirely. We went to a village where a house had been bombed by mistake, killing somebody and causing a lot of anger and mistrust. We visited a health clinic that had been poorly built under a US-funded program and was not being supported by the national and district governments. We were attacked by insurgents on several occasions. We drafted reports. We provided briefings to military commanders. We briefed the the US Ambassador on provincial issues when he came through on a short visit. Basically, we did things that we will be doing in real life in another week or two.

This past week was hard work, but it was a lot of fun as well. I had a great team. Among our group of six, there was a wide range of experience: Peace Corps, agriculture, international NGO, State Department, law, military, and business. There were no outsize egos and there were no slackers. Everybody led at some point and everybody had the experience of being completely lost at others. Everybody had a sense of humor about it all, too. At one point, we were meeting with villagers on a serious matter. We were sitting around a rug with the elders, cross-legged and with our boots and helmets off, deep in sensitive discussions, when a firefight erupted. Our security forces pulled us out and, with no time for dilly-dallying, we raced off through the mud in our socks, boots in one hand and helmets jammed on our heads with the other, laughing like fiends.

There were other fun times. The last night, our Afghan role-players held a party for us. It was Afghan-style: rugs on the floors, shoes off, men dancing to Afghan music, women grouped together in the back of the room, and plenty of great Afghan food. I sat and talked with one man who had been in several scenarios with us and learned more about him and his history. It was great.

So now I'm sitting in a hotel room near Dulles Airport. I did my laundry this morning and then mailed home a bunch of things that I won't need downrange. I'm putting together another box of stuff to be mailed to me once I get an address. I really don't want to go lugging two heavy duffel bags halfway around the world if it's not absolutely necessary.

And I'm enjoying hot showers again. After a week of living in rather austere conditions (think the worst KOA campground you've ever been to, including mud, gravel, and showers with no hot water, and you get the picture), it's great to be back in a civilized environment.

But this respite is short-lived. Tomorrow I get on the plane and head to my new job. After all this training, I'm excited about it. And nervous. But I'm really looking forward to it. This is going to be a long, intense, and frustrating year, but it's a chance to contribute to a much greater effort. How often do you get a chance to do something like that? You gotta grab it when you can and run with it. Time to run, then!